Holiday Reading: Five Top Paragraphs
The first is from Rodney Stark’s provocative book about the Crusades, God’s Battalions, and pulls no punches on the misrepresentation and overapologetic tone that bedevils this particular period of history: “To sum up the prevailing wisdom: during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalised, looted, and colonised a tolerant and peaceful Islam. Not so. As will be seen, the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonise the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy paces. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, this had nothing to do with hopes of converting Islam. Nor were the Crusades organised and led by surplus sonship but by the heads of great families who were fully aware that the costs of crusading would far exceed the very modest material rewards that could be expected; most went at immense personal cost, some of them knowingly bankrupting themselves to go. Moreover, the crusader kingdoms that they established in the Holy Land, and that stood for nearly two centuries, were not colonies sustained by local exactions; rather, they required immense subsidies from Europe.”
Turning to contemporary politics, I was pleased to see Slavoj Žižek express an unusually Christian conclusion on political freedom, in the London Review of Books: “The general rule is that when a revolt against an oppressive half-democratic regime begins, as with the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans - for democracy, against corruption, etc. But we are soon faced with more difficult choices. When the revolt succeeds in its initial goal, we come to realise that what is really bothering us (our lack of freedom, our humiliation, corruption, poor prospects) persists in a new guise, so that we are forced to recognise that there was a flaw in the goal itself. This may mean coming to see that democracy can itself be a form of un-freedom, or that we must demand more than merely political democracy: social and economic life must be democratised too. In short, what we first took as a failure fully to apply a noble principle (democratic freedom) is in fact a failure inherent in the principle itself.” Žižek is better at analysing problems than suggesting solutions - which political theorists aren’t? - but he makes a good point here.
Also in the LRB, I came across a great argument for Keynesianism from David Runciman, off the back of the shale gas revolution (which, astonishingly, looks set to make America a net exporter of energy by 2017): “In fact, it was state investment in hydraulic fracturing in the 1970s that laid the groundwork for the current boom. This is something that champions of the free market invariably ignore: far-reaching technological change is almost always a consequence of massive public investment at the outset, often fuelled by the imperatives of a national political crisis. As William Janeway argues in an important new book, technological revolutions depend on ostensibly wasteful government spending to do the heavy lifting at the beginning; the market won’t take the risks. Only later will the private sector step in to compete for the spoils, producing the inevitable bubbles but also the marketable products. It happened with the IT revolution, which was kick started by vast government spending on military R&D during the Cold War, and it’s happened with fracking, thanks to the heightened security fears set in train by the oil crisis of the 1970s. Crises induce governments to throw money at the wall in the hope something will stick. But when products finally reach the market, often a generation or more later, the role of government is forgotten.” Given that I hail from Balcombe, the village at the centre of the fracking brouhaha in the UK, this was of particular interest to me.
Just in case you think I was only reading lefties, I also took the chance to catch up with The Economist. You can perhaps imagine my surprise when they slammed Reza Aslan (whose book, it appears, was reviewed by absolutely everybody in the two weeks I was away) for discounting the possibility that prophecy happens: “How people respond to prophets and their claims is an existential choice, but a belief that prophets exist - that not all concepts can be reduced to historical context - is central to any religious faith. This means that appreciating the possibility of prophecy (whatever one chooses to make of it) is vital to the work of a religious historian. Mr Aslan has shown elsewhere that he understands this, but there is not much sign of this insight in his latest book.”
And finally, since we were on holiday in the part of the UK that has arguably the best beaches in the nation (I’m excluding the Western Isles, since nobody I know has ever been there), I was moved to reflection and hilarity in equal measure by this from Bill Bryson: “Among the many thousands of things that I have never been able to understand, one in particular stands out. That is the question of who was the first person who stood by a pile of sand and said, ‘You know, I bet if we took some of this and mixed it with a little potash and heated it, we could make a material that would be solid and yet transparent. We could call it glass.’ Call me obtuse, but you could stand me on a beach till the end of time and never would it occur to me to try to make it into windows.” Indeed.